The two-story building in Fells Point was constructed in the mid-1800s as a barn for horse-drawn trolleys. A century later, it had become a rope and twine works. Now it's home for the Daily Grind coffeehouse and the Orpheum Theatre.
By 1998, if all goes according to plan, it will house a public attraction befitting its prime waterfront location -- a new home for the Maryland Historical Society's Radcliffe Maritime Museum.
The society has made a tentative commitment -- possibly permitting the coffeehouse and theater to remain -- to lease part of the old trolley barn at 1724-26 Thames St. and an adjacent property to house its collection of maritime art and artifacts, now in the basement of its headquarters at 201 W. Monument St.
Assembled over the past 40 years and named for a former Maryland senator, George M. Radcliffe, the collection contains a vast and valuable array of ship's paintings and drawings, ship's models and other objects related to Maryland's maritime history.
The historical society has been looking for a new home for the Radcliffe collection on and off for more than 20 years. Its search had to be concluded soon because it is renovating the Monument Street building as part of a $20 million expansion and the basement there is needed for storage.
The society also wanted to move the collection to a setting that would give it more exposure, said Executive Director Dennis Fiori. "We think the idea of connecting the maritime collection to the waterfront is a good one," he said. "We also like the idea of having an outpost for the Maryland Historical Society on the waterfront."
Ziger/Snead & Charles Brickbauer Architects is working with the society to design the exhibit. The Thames Street property is "a fantastic location" for the collection, said architect Jamie Snead. "A lot of people don't even realize the collection is at the historical society now, because it's in the basement. This would be the right backdrop for it, and it would get a ton of foot traffic."
The relocated Radcliffe collection -- which might be renamed the Maryland Maritime Museum -- will be part of a larger history museum and visitor center planned by the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell's Point, also known as the Preservation Society.
The Fells Point organization already runs one museum, the Robert Long House, at 812 S. Ann St. It has been planning to
expand into buildings it controls at 1732 Thames St. and 808 S. Ann St.
The Preservation Society has an option to buy 1724, the trolley barn and a smaller building at 1728 from Lucretia Fisher, a member who recently donated 1732 Thames St. The society's buildings could be connected by a central courtyard. The entire project would cost about $2 million, including acquisition and construction.
The trolley barn still has traces of its original use.
"The horses were kept upstairs, and the trolleys were downstairs," said Romaine Somerville, the Preservation Society's executive director. "A hand-operated pulley elevator was used to take hay and grain to the horses, which went up a ramp to the area where the movie theater is now. The elevator is still there and will probably be kept as part of the restoration."
Once the Preservation Society acquires the trolley barn, she said, it will be leased to the historical society.
Mr. Fiori said he likes the fact that the current tenants, the coffeehouse and the movie theater, may be able to remain as revenue sources for the museum. The movie theater could even be used during the day as an orientation center for the Radcliffe collection he said.
"We're looking upon this whole complex as a gateway to Fells Point," Mrs. Somerville said. "Not an end in itself, but a place that will prepare people to go out and enjoy the rest of the waterfront community."
The smaller building at 1728 Thames St., which contains a dress shop called Superial Threads, dates from about 1875. Mrs. Somerville said it could be turned into a gift shop and entrance for the maritime museum, with residences above.
"We're going to try to include as many elements of the complex as possible," she said, "because they'll add life to the street even when the museum is closed."